Chairing Board meetings online can be a challenge. Mike Tait offers advice from his direct experience.

Chairing a board meeting online via Secure Video Conferencing such as Google Meet, Facetime or Zoom is a challenge beyond chairing a face to face meeting. Without the human contact that comes with everyone being in the same room there feels like a definite barrier present when staring at the mosaic of participants on a computer screen.

I wondered if I could ever get used to virtual board meetings and whether a board could operate properly given the need for significant debate and interaction on many subjects. Because of the pandemic there was no alternative but to hold board meetings online. Now it has become quite the norm and much can still be achieved if certain rules and etiquette is followed.

In my corporate career I got used to board meetings that were very long. They were long because the operations under review were large and complex. At Unisys for example, I and a few colleagues would travel regularly to all of our fourteen European subsidiaries to review progress and performance in the country. In the largest of our subsidiaries that were over $1 billion in turnover, those meetings could last around twelve hours. The level of concentration needed even in a face to face meeting was considerable. To do these sorts of reviews over video conferencing would require super human concentration and a lot of planning and discipline.

So how can a chairman ensure the best out of an online board meeting? The answer is through very disciplined chairmanship, a lot of liaising from the chairman, and a lot of preparation and understanding by all.

There a number of things that the Chairman can do to mitigate some of the inevitable difficulties of running board meetings online;

  • The chairman should make sure the board reports are produced and circulated well ahead of the board meeting. Most board reports are comprehensive and detailed. The chairman should satisfy himself that the reports paint particularly clear pictures about the business and if they are written in a way which cannot be easily understood, modifications should be requested.
  • The chairman should encourage all those attending the online board meeting to be conscious of not asking questions that could have been dealt with offline and to try and focus on challenges and debate that should definitely engage the others. There is nothing worse than having board members that seem to just love the sound of their own voice or want to look clever, slowing the meeting down with questions that didn’t really require all others to be involved in.
  • The chairman should clearly specify the etiquette for online meetings such as logging in a few minutes before the meeting starts, no turning the camera off frequently which is a clear sign a member is not paying attention, and putting your hand up to say something rather than just talk over the presenter. If the meeting is to be recorded, make sure everyone is notified and is in agreement. Finally, don’t allow multi tasking. If you see any member fiddling with their phone or doing other things like typing on their computer then discreetly ask them to stop by sending a message.
  • Make sure that documents and presentation slides can be clearly seen on everyone’s screen. There is nothing worse than having to minimise the Zoom screen to go find written material or slides.
  • Make sure the agenda is prioritised for the most important matters that must be discussed and decided upon and that each are allocated proper time. Be practical about the time each is likely to take. There’s no point stuffing the agenda with items where you know in all honesty there’s no chance of covering them all. If you do this, you set the agenda up for a fall right from the beginning. The Chairman’s challenge then is to channel and control the debates so that they keep to time without diluting the attention the subject required.
  • Ahead of online board meetings it is beneficial for the Chairman to ring round board members to see if they have some particular questions or challenges they want to make. That way the Chairman can pick up whether there are any potential controversies, politics or tensions about to show themselves, as well as general questions – all of which could be dealt with offline giving the board meeting the best chance of productivity.
  • The chairman should look for signs that members are suffering the ‘switching off’ feeling and if so call a break in the meeting. Quality of debate, challenge and decision making can’t be maintained if some board members have lost their concentration.

 

Some very good advice on running virtual meetings can be had here:

https://www.hoppier.com/blog/virtual-meeting

https://trustees.aha.org/7-tips-successful-online-board-meetings

https://www.redbackconnect.com.au/board-meeting/

https://www.associationofchairs.org.uk/beyond-the-basics-how-chairs-can-make-online-meetings-work-for-their-board-teams/